Amos was at the forefront of a number of female singer-songwriters in the early 1990s and was noteworthy early in her career as one of the few alternative rock performers to use a piano as her primary instrument. She is known for emotionally intense songs that cover a wide range of subjects including sexuality, religion and personal tragedy. Some of her charting singles include "Crucify", "Silent All These Years", "Cornflake Girl", "Caught a Lite Sneeze", "Professional Widow", "Spark", and "A Sorta Fairytale".
Amos had sold 12 million records worldwide as of 2005 and has also enjoyed a large cult following. Having a history of making eccentric and at times ribald comments during concerts and interviews, she has earned a reputation for being highly idiosyncratic. As a social commentator and sometimes activist, some of the topics she has been most vocal about include feminism, religion, and sexuality.
Amos was the third child of Rev. Dr. Edison and Mary Ellen Amos, born at the Old Catawba Hospital in Newton, North Carolina, during a trip from their home in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.. Her maternal grandparents were of mixed European and Eastern Cherokee ancestry; of particular importance to her as a child was her grandfather, Calvin Clinton Copeland, who was a great source of inspiration and guidance to her as a young child, offering a more pantheistic spiritual alternative to her father and paternal grandmother's traditional Christianity. When Amos was 2, her family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she began to play the piano. By age five, she had begun composing instrumental pieces on piano and at nine started to add lyrics to her pieces.
In 1968, while living in Rockville, Maryland, she won a full scholarship to the Preparatory Division of the Peabody Conservatory of Music at the age of 5. Her scholarship was discontinued at age 11 and she was asked to leave. Amos has asserted that she lost the scholarship because of her interest in rock and popular music coupled with her dislike for reading from sheet music. Two years later, she began studying at Montgomery College and began playing at piano bars, chaperoned by her father, who was sending tapes of songs she had written to record companies.
She first came to local notice by winning a county Teen Talent contest in 1977, singing a song called "More Than Just a Friend". As a senior at Richard Montgomery High School, she co-wrote "Baltimore" with her brother Mike Amos for a competition involving the Baltimore Orioles. The song won the contest and became her first single, released as a 7" single pressed locally for family and friends during 1980 with another Amos-penned composition as a B-side, "Walking With You". Prior to this period she performed under her middle name, Ellen, but permanently adopted Tori after a friend's boyfriend told her it suited her.
That same year, Amos formed a music group, Y Kant Tori Read, the name of which was a reference to her days at the Peabody conservatory, where she was able to play songs on her piano simply after hearing them once, but was never able to get the hang of reading and playing from sheet music. Besides Amos, the group was composed of Steve Caton (who would later play guitars on her albums), drummer Matt Sorum, bass player Brad Cobb and, for a short time, keyboardist Jim Tauber. A year later, Atlantic Records gave Amos a six-record contract. In 1987 she appeared in the courtroom soap opera Trial by Jury as a female defendant. In July 1988, the band's debut album Y Kant Tori Read was released and was not received well, leaving Amos dejected and humiliated. After the flop, Amos began working with other artists (including Stan Ridgway, Sandra Bernhard, and Al Stewart) as a backup vocalist. She also recorded a song called "Distant Storm" for the film China O'Brien; in the credits, the song is attributed to a band called Tess Makes Good. It was the only song recorded by the band, and its only commercial release was in the film.
Although Amos often voices embarrassment concerning Y Kant Tori Read, she has performed various songs from the album live in concert. The album is now out of print, and Amos has expressed no interest in reissuing it.
Despite the disappointing reaction to Y Kant Tori Read, Amos still had to comply with her six-record contract with Atlantic Records, who in 1989 wanted a new record by March 1990. When she presented them with her initial recordings, they were rejected on the grounds that such piano-based music would not sell in an early-'90s market of grunge, rock, rap, and dance music. Extensively reworked and expanded with the help of Steve Caton, Eric Rosse, Will MacGregor, Carlo Nuccio, and Dan Nebenzal, the record ended up full of raw, emotive songs recounting her religious upbringing, sexual awakening, struggle to establish her identity, and her sexual assault. The Atlantic executives changed their minds upon hearing the updated version, with the plan to promote her as an heir to Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, or alternatively as a female version of Elton John. Expecting the traditionally more open-minded UK market to warm to Amos and to create a "buzz" with which to return to the US, Atlantic relocated Amos to England in early 1991 to play small clubs in preparation for the launch of the new album, which was released under the title Little Earthquakes. This album established Amos as a gay icon: on the 2008 ranking of Out magazine, it was ranked as the 54th most gay album of all time, and 2nd on a similar ranking by PerezHilton.com.
During this period, Amos befriended author Neil Gaiman, who became a fan after she referenced him in the song "Tear In Your Hand" and also in print interviews. Although created before the two met, the character Delirium from Gaiman's The Sandman series (or even her sister Death) is inspired by Amos; Gaiman has stated that "they steal shamelessly from each other". Gaiman would go on to become a long-time friend and collaborator. His 2006 tribute album from Ferret Records has an Amos lyric for its title (Where's Neil When You Need Him?) and contains the Amos track "Sister Named Desire". Amos would also write the introduction to the trade paperback collection of Gaiman's Death: The High Cost of Living.
After touring throughout 1992 in support of Little Earthquakes, Amos traveled to New Mexico with personal and professional partner Eric Rosse in 1993 to write and largely record her second solo record, Under the Pink. Amos continued to write about the events in her own life on her second album, while also drawing inspiration elsewhere from the works of Georgia O'Keeffe and Salvador Dalí, the literature of Alice Walker, and the Russian princess Anastasia Romanov. Musically, Amos drew from the style of classical composers she had studied during her childhood, and put more focus on her solo piano rather than band instrumentation. The musical complexity drawn from her classical background is particularly evident in such tracks as "Icicle" and the sweeping, nine-and-a-half minute, "Yes, Anastasia". Under the Pink features the contribution of vocals to one track by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.
In June 1994, Amos co-founded RAINN, The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, a toll-free help line in the US connecting callers with their local rape crisis center. Amos, herself a victim of sexual assault, was seen as unlocking the silence of her assault through her music; thus "Unlock the Silence" went on to become a year-long campaign for RAINN when Amos became a national spokesperson for the organization. By the summer of 2006, RAINN had received its one millionth caller and the organization's success has led to it ranking in "America’s 100 Best Charities" by Worth, and one of the "Top 10 Best Charities" by Marie Claire. RAINN has played an active role in urging Congress to fund programs relating to sexual assault, including getting legislation passed for requiring sex offender registries in all states, and most recently to calling on Congress to investigate allegations of misconduct by contractors in Iraq.
While Amos was achieving success in different aspects of her career, her personal and professional relationship with Eric Rosse ended during this time, which served as the stimulus for her third solo album, Boys for Pele. The album was recorded in an Irish church, in Delgany, County Wicklow, Ireland, with Amos taking advantage of the church recording setting to create an album ripe with baroque influences, lending it a darker sound and style. She added harpsichord, harmonium, and clavichord to her keyboard repertoire, and also included such anomalies as a gospel choir, bagpipes, church bells, and drum programming.
The album garnered mixed reviews upon its release in January 1996, with some critics praising its intensity and uniqueness while others bemoaned its comparative impenetrability. Despite the album's erratic lyrical content and instrumentation, the latter of which kept it away from mainstream audiences, Boys for Pele is Amos' most successful simultaneous transatlantic release, reaching # 2 on both the Billboard 200 and the UK Top 40 upon its release at the height of her fame.
Later in 1996, Amos began her own vanity label called Igloo, internal to Atlantic Records. Her first signing was the band Pet, headed by lead singer Lisa Papineau. Their self-titled debut album, for which Amos served as executive producer, included the song "Lil' Boots," which was also featured on the soundtrack for The Crow: City of Angels. Record sales were meager and the subsidiary label was quickly dissolved.
While on tour to promote Boys for Pele, Amos and her sound engineer Mark Hawley began a romantic relationship. As the year-long tour drew to a close, Amos discovered she was pregnant. She initially planned to take the next year away from the limelight and the recording studio in order to focus on her pregnancy and motherhood, however, Amos miscarried two days before Christmas 1996 at three months, plunging her into new emotional depths. In early 1997, shortly after the miscarriage, Amos performed a televised concert called "The Concert for RAINN", which coincided with "National RAINN Day" as well as introduced a year-long campaign in collaboration with Calvin Klein eye wear, the proceeds of which were collected for RAINN. During the concert many cable and network television stations aired Amos' public service announcement about the organization. Another noteworthy aspect of this concert is that it includes a duet with Amos' friend Maynard James Keenan of the band Tool.
Although Amos had planned to take time off from writing and recording in preparation for her pregnancy, she unexpectedly began writing new material while recovering from her miscarriage at her second home in Florida. She suffered a second miscarriage in May 1997, this time earlier in the pregnancy, before returning to Cornwall, England, where she settled with Hawley. Fueled by Amos' desire to have her own recording studio, they converted the barn of their new home into a state-of-the-art recording studio, Martian Engineering Studios. With a roster of new songs written and a studio at her immediate disposal, Amos spent the latter part of the year recording new songs that would become her fourth solo album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, the studio's inaugural recording.
Following Amos and Hawley's marriage on February 22, 1998, Atlantic released From the Choirgirl Hotel, in May 1998. The underlying theme of the album deals with her miscarriages, interspersed with elements of her marriage and other personal events. The lyrics "She's convinced she could hold back a glacier, but she couldn't keep baby alive/doubting if there's a woman in there somewhere" from the album's lead single, "Spark", and "Then the baby came before I found/the magic how to keep her happy" from the song "Playboy Mommy" showcase the impact that miscarrying had on Amos. Inspired by the freedom of having her own recording studio, the album varies greatly from previous albums, with the acoustic piano-based sound found on Little Earthquakes (1992), Under the Pink (1994) and Boys for Pele (1996) being largely replaced with arrangements that include elements of electronica, jazz and some styles of dance music.
Album reviews were mostly favourable and praised Amos' continued artistic originality (it was voted among the best albums of the year by Q magazine) and the album, while not her highest chart debut, is Amos' best-selling debut, selling 153,000 copies in its first week.
Amos' first tour with a full band proved successful and precipitated the decision to make her next project a double album. It would comprise live material recorded on tour as well as b-sides, and be bolstered by two to three new unreleased compositions. Amos was surprised to find herself instead creating entirely new songs. As a result, the project mutated into a set of new songs instead the planned collection of b-sides. This mixed compilation of live and new studio material was released in a two-disc format in September 1999 under the title To Venus and Back.
The album was supported by a short tour, "The Five and a Half Weeks Tour", which Amos co-headlined with Alanis Morissette. It commenced a month prior to the release of To Venus and Back. Amos and the band continued on with the To Dallas and Back tour, which was followed by a short solo tour, but promotional plans were cut when Amos suffered her third miscarriage, again at three months, on November 11, 1999. Amos would later reveal that Atlantic allowed her only two days to recuperate before pushing her back into a promotional schedule, one reason that caused her eventual split from the record label in 2002.
After releasing two albums and embarking on two tours in rapid succession, Amos took a break from both touring and recording in 2000 to devote to another pregnancy. Amos became a mother, giving birth to her daughter, Natashya, in September 2000. Inspired by the songs she heard on the radio while looking after her daughter at her second home in Florida, Amos hatched the idea to produce a covers album, recording songs written by men about women and turning them around to suit the female perspective. That idea grew into the covers album Strange Little Girls, which was released in September 2001. The unique album garnered substantial press attention, as did the artwork featuring Amos photographed in character of the women portrayed in each song. Amos would later reveal in Piece by Piece that a stimulus for the album was to end her contract with Atlantic Records without giving them new original songs; Amos felt that since 1998, the label had not been properly promoting her and had trapped her in a contract by refusing to sell her to another label.
With her Atlantic contract fulfilled after a 15-year stint, Amos signed to another major label, Epic in early 2002. In October, Amos released Scarlet's Walk, her first album under the new label. Described as a "sonic novel", the 18-track album proved to be a landmark for a variety of reasons. Stylistically, Amos put drums and bass guitar at the forefront, using her piano playing as an accent rather than a highlight. Thematically, the album explores Amos' alter ego, Scarlet, and her cross-country trip in 2001 following 9/11. Through the songs, Amos explores the history of America, American people, Native American history, pornography, masochism, homophobia and misogyny, but the political nature of the album is often tempered by the classic production and songwriting style, recalling the likes of Fleetwood Mac.
Following her debut with Epic, Amos still owed Atlantic a retrospective hits package. Given the option to be involved in the project, Amos elected to take a central role in the production of the collection. In November 2003 Tales of a Librarian was released, which Amos described as a "sonic autobiography", a title derived from her dislike of the term "greatest hits". Amos revisited the mixing of many of her own favorite songs from her career, focusing on those she thought were not fully realized in their original recordings and those that she felt explained her life story. Recording under the premise that a librarian is a "chronicler", Amos pieced together the compilation album, adding two new songs and two re-recorded B-sides. The songs are arranged in accordance with the Dewey Decimal System, extending the librarian theme of the album. Shortly after the release of Tales of a Librarian, Amos made her first film appearance in Mona Lisa Smile as a big-band singer and contributed two songs to the film's soundtrack.
Not long after Amos was ensconced with her new label, she received unsettling news when Polly Anthony resigned as president of Epic Records in 2003. Anthony had been one of the primary reasons Amos signed with the label and as a result of her resignation, Amos formed the Bridge Entertainment Group, a company devoted to helping musicians in various ways during a time when the music industry is changing. Further trouble for Amos occurred the following year when her label, Epic/Sony Music Entertainment, merged with BMG Entertainment as a result of the industry's decline. Amos would later hint in interviews that during the creation of her next album, those in charge at the label following the aforementioned merger were interested "only in making money", the effects of which on the album have not been disclosed.
Amos' next album, The Beekeeper, was conceptually influenced by the ancient art of beekeeping, which she considered a source of female inspiration and empowerment. Through extensive study, Amos also wove in the stories of the Gnostic gospels and the removal of women from a position of power within the Christian church to create an album based largely on religion and politics. Many fans and critics, however, have argued that the concept is unclear and confusing. The album's debut at # 5 on the Billboard 200 in February 2005 is a milestone for Amos, placing her in an elite group of women to have secured five or more US Top 10 album debuts. In conjunction with the album, Amos released an autobiography co-authored by rock music journalist Ann Powers entitled Piece by Piece, which delves deeply into Amos' interest in mythology and religion and explores her songwriting process as well as telling the story of her progression into fame. Later that year Amos released a series of live "official bootlegs" recorded during her promotional tours in support of The Beekeeper in response to fans paying for low-quality bootlegs. A website was established at toriamosbootlegs.com where hard copies of the releases were made exclusively available. In December, all six two-disc sets were issued as a 12-disc box set entitled The Original Bootlegs.
During 2005, Amos negotiated a contract with the Warner Bros. reissue imprint Rhino to release reissues and compilations. The first release of the deal was the two-disc DVD set Fade To Red: The Video Collection in February 2006, which contained most of Amos' solo music videos as well as behind-the-scenes footage and commentary. The contract continued in September 2006 with the release of the five-disc box set A Piano: The Collection, celebrating Amos' 15-year solo career. The set includes various album songs, singles, remixes, alternate mixes, demos and a string of unreleased songs from album recording sessions. The collection is packaged to resemble a piano keyboard with extensive liner notes (including Amos' commentary) and a hardcover book. While the contents of the box set are extensive, many B-sides and rarities do not appear in this collection.
In several interviews while promoting A Piano, Amos revealed details about her ninth studio album. The thematic nature of and the concepts behind the next album were revealed in an interview early in 2007, with Amos stating she was "jumping ship" from her previous work and that A Piano was the summation of her previous work and the end of an era. The album, recorded with new microphones, pianos, and a Yamaha CS80 synth keyboard, was released under the title American Doll Posse on May 1, 2007 in the US. The "Posse", a group of girls who are used as a theme of alter-egos in the album, consists of Amos in five guises. In conjunction with the tour, Amos released the Legs & Boots series, complete shows from the North American leg of her American Doll Posse tour available for download. A total of 27 shows were recorded as part of the Legs & Boots series.
In May 2008, Amos announced that after working with major record labels for over two decades, she had left Epic Records and would be operating independently. It was also announced that a "project of music and visuals" is expected to be released in spring 2009. Other concurrent projects, Amos writing the music for Samuel Adamson's musical adaptation of the George MacDonald story The Light Princess for the Royal National Theatre and recording a duet with David Byrne, former lead singer of Talking Heads, for his album Here Lies Love, are expected to debut sometime in 2009.
S. Alexander Reed has written about the intertextual relationships between Gaiman and Amos' work. Reed does close readings of several of Amos' allusions to Gaiman, noting that they happen at points in the songs where the musical motifs of the song begin expanding out of their initial forms, disrupting the established pattern of the song. He reads this disruption in terms of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's idea of the mirror stage, arguing that the mutual referentiality serves to create an ideal vision of the reader-as-fan that the actual reader encounters and misrecognizes as themselves, thus drawing the reader into the role of the devoted (and paying) fan.